If the fairways of all 116 of Nevada’s golf courses were laid end-to-end, they would stretch from Las Vegas to Reno, encompassing a history as varied as the people who currently play on them. From age to gender to ethnic background, not to mention ability, golf is attracting an increasingly diverse group of players armed with equipment that helps even an average player hit the ball longer and straighter than ever before. In addition, golfers are increasingly demanding in their ideas of what a golf course should be. Daily fee courses have made what used to be exclusive clubs available to every player with the ability to pay, and golf courses have become destinations, a reason to travel somewhere or to stay longer once you get there.
With the number of golfers increasing each year, the demand for new facilities has pushed golf course design into what many are considering a second golden age (see golf history sidebar) and turned many course architects into stars with devoted followings. Several designers now feature “signature” courses and Jack Nicklaus even has a “greatest hits” course, Bear’s Best, in Las Vegas.
According to Greg Muirhead, senior architect for Rees Jones, Inc. and the current president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), people’s perceptions of what a golf course should look like and how it should be maintained have changed the way courses are designed. “Everybody has higher expectations now than they did even 10 or 20 years ago about turf quality and the aesthetics of a golf course,” he said, adding that the public has a much higher awareness of golf course architecture than ever before, with websites and chat rooms specifically devoted to the topic.
Who’s Playing the Game
The game’s changing demographics have probably exerted the greatest influence on current course design. While almost every developer would like to build a championship course and attract golf’s best and brightest for a PGA event, the fact of the matter is that golf is a business and, like all businesses, it has to make money to be successful. That won’t happen if only the top 20 players in the world can play the course. From beginners who are just learning the game to scratch players, juniors to seniors and everyone in between, and players of both sexes, a course should provide challenges for the seasoned player while not frustrating the beginner to the point of quitting. According to Ran Morrissette, whose website golfclubatlas.com is a gathering place for golf course architects and aficionados of the field, the best course is one where all the generations of a family can enjoy playing golf together – grandparents, parents and children.
To meet the needs of such a diverse range of players, one of the most visible changes in the past decade has been the increase in the number of tees on each hole. In some cases, as many as five to seven tees are available, where even a decade ago, a player’s choices were limited to men’s, women’s and championship or tournament tees. “We’re trying to make sure the game is more open and accessible,” said Tom Marzolf, senior design associate for Fazio Golf Course Designers, Inc. “In the ‘60s, there wasn’t an emphasis on creating a shorter course so people new to the game could enjoy themselves. Today, we’re building shorter and shorter tees to accommodate people who are learning the game at whatever age that might be, from children to seniors. We’re getting new golfers all the time, and we need to offer them a fun experience. So we’re building a set of forward tees that are around 5,000 total yards in contrast to courses designed in the 1960s when the shortest tees on the course approached 6,000 yards.”
From the mid-point of the last century and even into the 1980s, many courses rewarded players who hit long, straight drives and penalized those who didn’t with bunkers, roughs and other hazards. Today’s designs emphasize a more strategic game, where players can make decisions based on their level of skill. Steve Forrest, a principal with Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates, said these courses work on a risk/reward philosophy. “You’re trying to set up that situation on every shot so that players can see, for instance, if they risk carrying over a sand trap, that they’ll be rewarded with an easier shot to the green,” he said.
In addition to building courses that allow for players of varying experience, many facilities are now creating more elaborate practice areas. Marzolf said that as more people play and greater emphasis is placed on learning the game, the practice area has doubled or tripled in size compared to its counterparts built 50 years ago. “It’s quite common for us to lay out practice ranges that occupy 15 to 30 acres. In the 1960s, it would be rare that any practice range exceeded 10 acres … that’s a huge commitment of land by the owner or the developer,” he said.
Bringing Together Technology and Nature
While changes in technology have had a dramatic effect on the player’s game, similar advances have revolutionized the tools available to the course designer, as well. “Just like every other industry, the technology has had a real impact on the construction process and the type of equipment used,” said Muirhead. “The regular bulldozing equipment now utilizes GPS technology. Each operator downloads my grading plan into the onboard computer, and the bulldozer will actually adjust its own blades to hit the precise grade as the operator is grading it.”
Irrigation systems have undergone a similar renaissance with computerized sprinkler systems that provide more localized control over where the water goes. Current irrigation systems use much less water while providing better coverage than those used 20 years ago, which, in turn, has allowed courses to grow turf grasses over a larger area. In addition, fairways and roughs are now routinely irrigated, giving course designers a greater range of landscaping options.
Water is a major issue on a golf course – where it is, where it shouldn’t be, making sure that the turf remains green, drains properly, and holds up to a substantial amount of wear and tear – are all key factors to be considered in the design of the course. According to Oscar Rodriguez, vice president and construction manager for Weitz Golf International, many of the architects Weitz works for have incorporated the same drainage concepts used on greens into their construction of fairways and roughs. Greens have always been built to withstand almost continuous use with a base of sand, gravel and organic material, as well as drainage pipes to take water away. Those same techniques are now being used under fairways and roughs to maintain the grass and keep it looking healthy. “The expectation of the quality of the course is high, and technology has helped us achieve that quality,” Rodriquez said.
Technology has also helped designers create courses that blend more seamlessly with the surrounding environment. Created more like the ancient courses along the Scottish coast that threaded their way through the naturally occurring undulations of the “linksland” area, today’s courses often accommodate and protect environmentally sensitive areas. The ASGCA, in particular, promotes golf course designs that lie lightly on the land and encourages the use of golf courses to provide green areas within urban environments. This is one reason Morrissette said today’s architects are rivaling those of golf’s Golden Age. “There’s a sense of escaping to nature. At its highest level, golf represents man battling nature,” he said.
If You Build It, They Need to Play
Sustainability has become a key concept in course design in recent years, both from the standpoint of the course components and profitability. There is a growing awareness that golf courses have a life cycle and those factors must be taken into account during the design phase. Muirhead said many courses are adopting master plans to phase renovations over several years and look at when key components such as cart paths or greens will need to be restored. In addition, many older courses are undergoing extensive renovations in order to keep up with the popularity of the newer courses.
With the possible exception of Las Vegas, a boom in new course construction throughout the country over the past two decades has produced a glut of stand-alone facilities, many of which face solvency issues. The greatest growth in new courses is now coming from residential real estate projects that are built around a golf course. Vic Williams, editor and publisher of Reno-based Fairways+Greens Magazine, said that as much as 80 percent of the new golf courses being built today are designed as amenities to upscale housing developments. This affects course design, he said, as the amount of land available for the golf course is dictated by the residential component.
Size is a factor that definitely affects golf. As courses get longer, they need more land, and the cost to build and maintain them rises. A few decades ago, $3 million was enough to build a solid course with cart paths and an automatic irrigation system. However, today’s base cost has jumped to roughly $6 million and can easily soar to $20 million or more depending on the amenities and landscaping. Muirhead said that some developers are looking to create alternative sites with fewer than nine or 18 holes. “If somebody has 45 acres available within a good demographic area where golfers lack a place to practice or play, then even a small facility such as a 3-hole or 6-hole or par-3 course or a practice facility will likely be successful and will serve the need of that community. Often times, these are the facilities that new golfers prefer to play because they won’t have to endure the pressure of playing an 18-hole course before they’re proficient,” he said. And getting new players involved in the game is the thing that will keep golf going and growing for a long time to come.